Welcome to Part 2 of this month’s Five minutes with… Q&A, featuring production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas (you can check out Part 1 here). In this second instalment, Guy discusses his work with Steven Spielberg on Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the mind-bending world he helped create for Christopher Nolan’s Inception, his recent work on Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs, and much, much more!
Once you were finished with the Queen of England, it was off to work with the King of Hollywood, Steven Spielberg, on a decidedly different kind of period piece: Indiana Jones and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. How did you go about matching the style established in the previous Indy films, especially since you had to take into account this film’s later setting and new environments?
In this last instalment of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’ cult Indiana Jones series, the year is 1957. In the previous films, we had become accustomed to Indiana Jones’ adversaries being Hitler’s Nazi army but now, time has passed and it’s a little over 10 years since his last adventures.
It was imperative for us to clearly place this story in a post war, mid-20th century America and everyone really strived to recreate this “latter day” style, while still remaining faithful to what fans have come to expect visually from an Indiana Jones film. Harrison Ford has a unique and almost intuitive knowledge of who Indiana Jones is, so when he described Indy as a dual person, half academic and half adventurer, I really tried to express that duality with our designs, mixing the historical with the precarious and dangerous.
When I first joined the project, Steven had already been working with Dan Gregoire and his previs team, creating extremely exciting and elaborate sequences which allowed us to design the sets to precisely fit the action. Once the art department was up and running, we also provided digital 3D models as concepts for each of our sets to the previs department, so that the action sequences were perfectly designed around accurately scaled set builds. We really benefited from their high expertise and speed at mapping out shots with our sets in mind.
I also went on an extensive research and location scout through Mexico and Guatemala, visiting many of the still-existing ancient pyramids and pre-Columbian ruins. We were also fortunate with this production to be able to spend all of our pre-production time and most of our shoot in Los Angeles, drawing upon the talents and experience of an amazing art department and construction crew, who all contributed in helping bring our concepts and vision to life.
The temple heart, with its ornate thrones and circular shape, is the most powerful and mysterious area of Akator. Here, we kept our use of vibrant colours and detailed carvings, while reducing the level of aging, since this chamber has been predominantly locked off from the rest of the world.
Our primary goal with this space was to clearly show the 13 skeletons arranged in a circle. We raised each skeleton onto stepped plinths decorated with ancient inscriptions, and about 3,500 tiles were cast for this purpose. The central floor was 26 feet across and entirely sculpted, resembling some of the existing Mesoamerican sacrificial slabs and sun stones.
Agora, your next film, took you back in time further than ever before, to ancient Alexandria. Director Alejandro Amenábar shunned the use of CGI in favour of building practical sets to bring the city to life – what was it like working on a production of that scale?
Alexandria was built on knowledge and at its heart was the greatest and largest library of Antiquity. It formed generation upon generation of scholars, philosophers and inventors whom made huge advances in mathematics, geometry, astronomy and medicine.
There were two libraries in Alexandria. The first one was burned during the time of Julius Caesar; for Agora we tell the lesser known story of the second library which grew to be equally grand in scale. Sometimes referred to as “The Daughter Library”, we study one of its most famous custodians, Hypatia, a young woman who was one of a small number of pagan scholars who fought to preserve it from destruction during the rise of Christianity.
Agora required a far more in depth and scholarly approach for the original historical material. Alejandro Amenabar wrote the script and during several years he researched Hypatia’s story by immersing himself in archives and history books. He spoke to astronomers and even travelled to the city of Alexandria with his producer.
For me, the design process on this film had also begun prior to joining the project. Alejandro provided me with his script a year prior to the start of pre-production and even though I was busy working on Indiana Jones, I was able to let all of our ideas flourish and really have the entire look of the film in my head before we even started pre-production and had to overcome any of the challenges of our construction deadlines.
Alexandria was a cosmopolitan city, a mix of cultures and languages, so we really felt that this needed to be reflected in the architecture. Sadly, hardly anything is left today in Alexandria from that ancient period so there was no way to realise the city other than building large parts of it. Also, there are few historical records of the buildings that formed the library complex, but we do know that it coexisted with the older architecture of the city.
With this information at hand, we constructed our library next to an ancient Egyptian temple, we built extensive sets that mixed traditional Greco-Roman esthetics with Egyptian architecture and other influences, keeping in mind that that’s the way cities evolve, even today.
From the very start director Alejandro Amenabar organised this film as an international co-production and it’s still quite unusual for European directors to come to Los Angeles to hire key crew and take them back for their productions. I enlisted my frequent collaborator, set decorator Larry Dias and together we set out to put together the team who would be entrusted with re-creating the legendary city of Alexandria in 400 AD.
Pre-production took place in Madrid, while the film was entirely lensed in Malta over the course of five months. By Spanish, and even by Hollywood standards, the physical side of this production was impressive. Alejandro is an exceptional director and he takes on many roles, he writes, directs and very often composes the music for his films. We formed a deep lasting friendship during the course of this film and I look back at the achievement of creating this world with great fondness.
You followed up Agora with a literal dream project: Inception. Again, you were again collaborating with a director, Christopher Nolan, well-known for his preference for achieving as much as possible “in camera”. The now-classic corridor fight sequence, which featured a set capable of rotating a full 360 degrees, is a prime example of this – what were the hurdles involved with making this set a reality?
For about a month before work begun on Inception, I’d visit Chris’ house and we’d spend the day in his work garage going over all aspects of the film. Chris had been working on the script for about twelve years at this point, so he had a pretty firm vision of the various worlds in his mind. But he was always open to ideas and suggestions, particularly with the more technical sets.
Chris didn’t want to rely too much on CGI and wanted the audience to be unsure about whether the various levels of the dreams were real or unreal environments. So despite the scope of the production pointing towards a heavily enhanced CGI film, he was very traditional in his approach.
We decided early on to actually build the rotating corridor, which was over 80 feet long and was lined in a rubber skin under fabric walls to protect our performers from really hurting themselves. Our approach to the corridor and all the challenging sets was about taking the script’s most elaborate sequences and stripping them right down to their essence (including the Penrose Staircase).
For a long time we studied classic films to analyse how they dealt with the challenges they faced simulating gravity and moving environments at a time before computer enhanced films. Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was an important inspiration, which we watched to see how they pulled off the illusion of a changing gravity.
For the overall style of the film, there are the obvious influences such as M.C. Escher, but this was always balanced with the idea of keeping the worlds grounded; take the design of the limbo world, which was heavily inspired by the city of Chernobyl.
Inception was also a script that never changed from day one, so the goal posts never moved. It allowed myself and the design team to really focus and achieve Chris’ vision for the film. It truly was a dream job!
One of your next projects was Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs. This film seems less demanding than much of your other work, yet there’s a sense of the production design helping to create an operatic mood – the set design in the late night boardroom scene springs to mind, for instance. How do you approach a story like this, which is set in a fairly conventional time and place?
The movie is split into three acts, each focusing on a separate product launch that happen to coincide with pivotal moments that define Steve’s life: the Macintosh launch in 1984, the Next Cube Launch in 1988 and the iMac launch in 1998. Even though each of these acts play in separate times and venues, stage as backdrop and reflection provide a binding visual motif. The 189 pages of Sorkin dialogue allow other characters to thoroughly reveal their perspective of Steve, while the sets, with their numerous reflections, allow the man to perceive himself, eventually in a truthful light.
For many years, I had worked as a product designer for Sony in Tokyo, before transitioning to the film industry. I have fond memories of that time, designing products for a cutting edge electronics company, and I believe that Apple’s design philosophy picked up somewhere where Sony left off in the mid-nineties. For the keen eye, you’ll notice in the film the discreet picture of Akio Morita, my old mentor and Sony’s founder, pinned to the wall of Steve’s garage, among other heroes of Steve’s (Dieter Rams, chief designer at Braun, and Bob Dylan are there too). This attention to detail summed up how passionately we felt about the film.
Steve Jobs is not an obvious project for an art department to get excited about, and yet we all felt a common responsibility to show an imagined snapshot into the life of a man who loved and cared so much about innovation and elegant design.
In the background to all this, you were brought onboard Spielberg’s adaptation of Daniel H. Wilson’s Robopocalypse, which now appears to be on hold indefinitely. How much of a disappointment is it when projects like these – which you can obviously do so much with in terms of look and style – fail to materialise? Is it a case of trying to focus on the positive aspects of the experience?
I worked extremely hard, as did the team I had assembled to put the project together. I was extremely happy to be back working with Steven after Indiana Jones; I think our creative chemistry is very good and the ideas we generated together are superb, very original and this film was on the path to be a game changer.
It’s hard for anyone in our industry to invest so much of their creative life into something that will not be seen – so many thought provoking images and ideas about technology, lifestyle and the way we will live in the future, our natural instinct for survival. You can’t think about it too much or you start getting depressed.
As time goes on, you start to see some of those Robopocalypse ideas materialise in other film and TV projects. That’s natural, as everyone else catches up to where we were in the years between 2010 and 2013, developing and designing the world. Over those years, I started prep in three countries and each time I believed this was going to happen, but it just didn’t.
I still feel lucky to have had that time at Dreamworks, and although the magic window for Robopocalypse has closed for me now, I look forward to working with Steven again. It’s always fun, always exciting and always a great opportunity to learn from a master filmmaker.
In the end it’s all about timing, when you are available and if you are a good fit for a particular project.
On the plus side, later this year will see the release of Passengers, set predominantly on a large spaceship (at least, according to the official plot synopsis!). How do you bring a fresh approach to the visuals of a big screen sci-fi outing, given the decades worth of films set within the genre?
I’m very excited to see this film, a great deal of passion went into the design of the ship. I had an amazing team and I think we are all very excited to see the final result. It’s hard to talk about as I would not like to give anything away, but I have a very special feeling about it. The director, Morten Tyldum, is a very dynamic and inspiring film maker and a fantastic fresh talent.
Finally, what advice would you give to someone looking to become a production designer?
Be a good collaborator with others, enjoy the art of creating things through drawings and models or whatever medium you chose. In the end you won’t need to look for a production design position, the job will somehow find you.
That’s a wrap for this two-part Q&A with production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas. If you missed Part 1, you can check it out below.